Thu, Nov 05, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Scientists add to climate data on Greenland mission

The US government spends about US$1 billion per year to support Arctic and Antarctic research, while the researchers are aware their work costs ‘a tremendous amount of taxpayer money’

By Coral Davenport, Josh Haner, Larry Buchanan and Derek Watkins  /  NY Times News Service, ON THE GREENLAND ICE SHEET

Stepping out, the scientists were hit by the cold of the Greenland summer — the temperature ranged from minus-3oC to 4oC while they were there — a constant wind and the glare of the sun.

As the researchers began to set up camp, Overstreet headed toward the river, silent as it sliced through the ice. More than any other member of the team, the success of the mission rested on his shoulders.

Overstreet, 31, who grew up kayaking and rafting in Oregon, had designed the rope-and-pulley system — modeled on swift-water boat rescue systems — that would be crucial to gleaning data from the treacherous waters. He had spent months refining and practicing his system on rivers in Wyoming.


The team soon got to work. A helicopter pilot flew two of Overstreet’s colleagues, Pitcher and Matthew Cooper, across the18m-wide river. On the opposite bank they drilled into the ice, attached an anchor and harnessed themselves to it for safety. They attached a nylon line to the anchor, with the rest of the line coiled in a heavy bag.

Now came the crucial part: The men took turns hurling the bag across the river, but it repeatedly fell into the water. After an anxious half-hour, Cooper finally got the rope across. Overstreet caught it and began setting up the rope-and-pulley system he had been testing for so long.

Farther upstream, Smith cast what looked like three small, round life preservers into the river. At US$3,000 each, they were equipped with waterproof computers, GPS and sonar depth technology, all to beam back information about the river’s elevation, speed, depth and more. The drifters were on kamikaze missions. After sending back the measurements, they would be swept into the moulin.

“That’s 3,000 taxpayer dollars, going down the hole,” Smith said.

On the edge of camp, Johnny Ryan, a doctoral candidate in geography at Aberystwyth University in Wales, launched an airplane-shaped drone from a slingshot-like device, then guided it over a nearly 194km3 area. Then the drone went silent.

“It stopped talking to me and now it’s crashed in the wilderness,” Ryan said.

Ryan, who wore a hot-pink knit cap and purple sunglasses that set off his red beard, launched his backup drone. Feeling stressed, he monitored its flight nervously as the hours rolled by, drinking tea to keep warm.

At the riverbank, Overstreet and Pitcher started the data collection by clipping a device that looked like a boogie board to the line running across the river. Every hour they sent it back and forth to measure the water’s depth, velocity and temperature.

As the day stretched into night, the device’s battery, sapped by the cold, began to die. By now the sun had dropped lower, filling the sky with a spectacular orange glow. The scientists were worried — the death of the battery would mean the death of their mission.

An idea occurred to Overstreet. He found a roll of heat-reflecting silver sheeting at the camp and wrapped it around the boogie board battery. During the next run across the river, it stayed alive.

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